Rotation

Paul Weller
Heavy Soul
Island

As the temperamental leader of the punk-tinged English power trio the Jam, Paul Weller began his career carving out a fierce vision indebted to early Mod and Merseybeat posturing at its most impenetrably Anglocentric. His sociopolitical lyrics -- not to mention a steadfast embrace of British culture and history -- were as alien to most young Yanks as baked beans on toast or life on the dole.

It wasn't a shock, then, that by the time Weller disbanded the Jam in 1982 after a glorious five-year run in Britain, they were still relative nobodies in the U.S. In succeeding years, Weller has failed to live up to the promise of the Jam's peerless late-'70s work. Indulgent forays into the realm of white-boy funk, soul and R&B with the Style Council (the stiff culmination of a Motown fetish that first emerged with the Jam) have largely fallen flat, as has much of his rambling '90s solo work. But deify or discount him, Weller continues to maintain that commercial success doesn't amount to a hill of bullocks as far as his place in rock history is concerned -- and he will not fade away quietly.

As Weller approaches middle age, it appears his contempt for those who view him as anything less than a tortured genius hasn't waned. "To all my people, you know and so do I. To anyone whosoever slated me -- fuck you," goes a line in the credits of his new Heavy Soul. That kiss-off to his detractors continues undeterred throughout the CD, with Weller cracking wise over clumsy grooves, rubbed-raw guitar licks and bristlingly direct arrangements. The vitriol appears as early as the disc's second track, "Peacock Suit," on which Weller bellows, "I have a grapefruit matter / It's sour as shit / I have no solutions / Better get used to it!"

Typically, Weller's crude vocal range has been well-suited to such pub-stool proselytizing, and little more. Yet Heavy Soul sports his most convincing attempts to soften his edges since the Jam's 1982 Beat Surrender. On a few tunes, Weller lets down his guard and allows some rather dreamy music to carry his mood. The best of these -- "Up in Suze's Room," a sultry, string-laced ode to sex and romance, and the genuinely moving one-two punch of "Driving Nowhere" and "I Should Have Been There to Inspire You" -- feature the singer at his most soulful, obviously buoyed by the compelling melodies.

Despite the brilliant patches, though, Heavy Soul lacks coherence. With a little fleshing out, it could have offered a fuller reconciliation between the raw emoting of Weller's earnest adolescence and the more tentative experiments of his uncertain adulthood. Instead, it's a muddled, if moving, failure. (*** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Cottonmouth, Texas
Anti-Social Butterfly
Virgin

The inherent problem with most spoken word records is that they're rarely worth a second listen. Most of the time they're not even collections of poetry, but instead political hot air, angry self-analysis or limp attempts at Leno-style punch lines -- the kind of cheap thrills that rarely stand up twice, even with a drum loop-and-siren soundscape as a distraction. But Anti-Social Butterfly is something different. In fact, it's already proven itself timeless.

How so? Well, this CD started off in 1994 as Dallas musician/producer Jeff Liles's debut for A&M, only to get shelved when sales of similar major-label records from Reg E. Gaines and Maggie Estep failed to live up to their hype. In 1995, the set resurfaced on Denton's tiny One Ton imprint as White Trash Receptacle, with Liles adopting the moniker of Cottonmouth, Texas. Now, virtually the same cycle of rants, vignettes and tunes is getting a well-deserved national rollout as Anti-Social Butterfly. And best of all, it still works.

Liles's genius is that he never attempts to be a pundit or a preacher. Instead, over ambient tracks provided by Dallas all-stars such as drummer Earl Harvin and keyboardist Zac Baird, Liles proves himself a witty observationalist who's more Bill Hicks than Adam Sandler. He's a storyteller, be that story a simple but stirring recollection of his first epileptic seizure or the tracing of a complex comedy of errors that begins and ends with a telephone number written on a pay phone's casing. And while Liles perhaps sounds most confident telling his drug tales on "Clock Radio" and "Stoned," he's equally compelling in his discussion of religion, poverty and gaming. They all build to something -- be it a laugh, tear or a nod of recognition. And although the complexity of the music, including a clever cameo from the Toadies on "PE," is clearly what makes Anti-Social Butterfly such a compelling aural collage, the way Liles has found lazy beats to match his own rambling and unaffected slacker delivery makes him more a frontman and bandleader than your average poet or performance artist.

Indeed, Liles has forged a soundtrack to his stories whose entries are themselves vital pieces of the tales. They're so vital, in fact, that they withstand and encourage repeat listens -- which in a spoken word market so disposable makes Anti-Social Butterfly nothing short of a landmark. (***)

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